In this first episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman introduce the vital Japanese words needed to explore the traditional Japanese distilled spirits of shochu and awamori. The sooner you remember these first few words, the faster you will begin to understand these fascinating drinks. By learning these few key Japanese words and phrases, you can talk about shochu and awamori like a pro and even make yourself understood in a bar or restaurant in Japan.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
They are routinely mistaken for one another in Kagoshima’s famous Tenmonkan drinking district despite neither of them living in the prefecture. They are also both university professors in their spare time.
Japanese Words (alphabetical):
awamori (泡盛) – the indigenous distilled spirit of Okinawa, always made with rice and black koji mold.
Geographical Indications (GI): officially recognized terroir regions for shochu and awamori in Japan.
- Amami Shochu (奄美焼酎) – kokuto sugar shochu produced in the Amami Islands. If it is produced anywhere else in Japan it is classified and taxed as “spirits”. This is a Japanese domestic GI.
- Iki Shochu (壱岐焼酎) – barley shochu produced on Iki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture. Must be made with ⅓ rice koji and ⅔ barley. This GI comes from the World Trade Organization (WTO).
- Kuma Shochu (球磨焼酎) – rice shochu produced in the Kuma River Valley region of Kumamoto Prefecture. This is a WTO GI.
- Ryukyu Awamori (琉球泡盛) – awamori produced in Okinawa. This is a WTO GI.
- Satsuma Shochu (薩摩焼酎 or さつま焼酎) – sweet potato shochu produced in Kagoshima. Must be made using local sweet potatoes. This is a WTO GI.
honkaku (本格) – authentic, traditional, original.
honkaku shochu (本格焼酎) – authentic shochu, which must be made from an approved ingredient, fermented using koji, and distilled in a pot still. If the shochu you are thinking about buying does not have this word on the label, buyer beware.
imo (芋) – sweet potato.
koji (麹 formally kōji) – aspergillus mold that converts starches to sugars in traditional sake, shochu, and awamori production. The national mold of Japan. Koji is also used to make soy sauce, mirin, miso, and a variety of other traditional Japanese fermented foods and beverages.
- Kuro Koji (黒麹) – aspergillus luchuensis, or black koji. All awamori is made with black koji.
- Ki Koji (黄麹) – aspergillus oryzae, or yellow koji. Nearly all sake is made with yellow koji.
- Shiro Koji (白麹) – aspergillus kawachi, or white koji. Most shochu is made with white koji. This is a mutation of black koji.
kokuto (黒糖) – traditional, unrefined Japanese sugar. Most famously produced in the Amami Islands.
kanpai (乾杯) – Traditional Japanese “cheers”, literally means “empty your glass.”
kome or mai (米) – rice. Kome is used on its own, but mai is used when the word follows another word as in the example of tai mai (タイ米 Thai rice).
mugi (麦) – barley. Often mistranslated as wheat, but mugi shochu is almost always made from 2 or 6 row barley, not wheat.
shochu (焼酎 formally shōchū) – the indigenous distilled spirit of Japan, most commonly made from sweet potatoes, barley, rice, kokuto sugar, or buckwheat.
soba (蕎麦, そば) – buckwheat.